When I sat down to plan a fairly last-minute trip to Portugal this summer, I didn't realize it had become such a popular destination. With its incredible architecture and tiled buildings, gorgeous beaches, and stunning wine country, it's easy to see why people are drawn to the country. In this article, I'll share some tips that I picked up while planning a trip to Portugal as well as what we learned once we got there. Hopefully, they will help you as you plan your next trip.
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Pro Tip: If it's been a while since you've taken an international trip, be sure to check the expiration date on your passport, plus country entry requirements. Some countries require up to 6 months validity on your passport from the date of departure. (Portugal requires 3 months validity.) If your passport expires before then, you may not be permitted to enter the country.
First Steps to Planning a Trip to Portugal
Portugal has been on my list of places to visit for years. After a tough summer with an unexpected tragedy, I decided it was time to get away to a place I've been dreaming of going. Given its popularity, planning a trip to Portugal several months (to a year) in advance is probably best. However, we managed to plan a great trip in about a month and a half.
When to Visit Portugal
Despite last-minute planning, late September / early October was the perfect time of year to visit Portugal. Every day was sunny and daytime temperatures in most places were warm to hot. Evenings were cool and pleasant. The air was fresh and it didn't seem very humid to me.
Planning Your Portugal Itinerary
Deciding where to go in Portugal was surprisingly difficult. For it being a relatively small country, Portugal still has too many beautiful places to visit them all in one trip.
First step of trip planning for me is some initial research using the Portugal Lonely Planet book, various blogs, and watching vlogs on YouTube. A shout-out to some sites that I found particular helpful when planning:
How Long to Visit Portugal
Our trip to Portugal was 14-days in duration. Two weeks is a good amount of time in Portugal. It not only allowed us to visit Lisbon and Porto, but also a few smaller towns as well.
If you have one week for your trip, I'd recommend focusing on Lisbon, Porto, and the Douro Valley. If you had 3 weeks, you could easily follow our itinerary, then head down south to the Algarve to enjoy the beautiful beaches and cliffs as well.
Pacing the Itinerary
The trick for me to planning a fantastic trip is to allow time to wander and relax in each town while also exploring as many new places as possible. In general, we prefer to spend 2-3 nights in each place which allows for 1-2 full days in each location.
Below is our 2-week itinerary in Portugal. This itinerary felt well-paced to me, although we could have spent more time in certain towns. Some of our road trip stops did cut into our time in the cities in which we stayed.
Our 2-Week Portugal Itinerary
- Sintra - day trip from Lisbon
Road trip stops along the drive from Porto to Lisbon: Aveiro, Nazaré, Peniche, Ericeira.
How Far Ahead Should I Book?
Since we had not initially planned to visit Portugal this year, we ended up planning our trip very last-minute. We began planning in early August and left on September 22nd for our trip. Despite our late planning, we found amazing places to stay and had an incredible trip.
With that said, if you know you're going to take a trip to Portugal, I recommend booking as far in advance as possible, especially if you're traveling during peak season. We weren't traveling in peak season but I found that hard to believe with how crowded it was.
Accommodations: 4-6 months
If you know you're going to be traveling several months ahead, I'd recommend booking accommodations quite early. The earlier you book, the wider range of available (and affordable) accommodations you'll find.
If you're visiting the Douro Valley and would like to stay at any of the wine hotels, I'd recommend booking even earlier, perhaps even a year in advance. Accommodations at the wineries are usually quite small and are booked up quickly.
Rental Car: 1-2 months
As with accommodations, the earlier you can reserve your rental car, the more options you'll have available. If you're going to rent a car in Portugal, keep in mind that you'll also want to make sure your hotel has parking or find a garage nearby.
Pro Tip: If you do not have an EU or American driver's license, you are required by law to have an International Driver's Permit (IDP) in addition to your driver's license to drive in Portugal. Since we have Hong Kong driver's licenses, I headed back to awful queue at the Licensing Office to get an IDP.
Train Tickets: 1-2 months
On this trip, we only took one train - the high speed (Alfa Pendular) from Lisbon to Porto. Booking more than 8 days in advance, you can save up to 65% on certain tickets. The train was a great option - comfortable, fast, and mostly on time.
Winery Tours & Tastings in Douro Valley: 1-2 months
If you're planning to visit the Douro Valley, you'll need to book tours and tastings at most wineries in advance. Some will allow walk-ins for tastings, though you may not have the same options as if you'd booked ahead.
When I booked about 1 month in advance, most of the wineries we wanted to visit still had openings, though some time slots were already full.
Pro Tip: Although many wineries have the option for online booking, I found it better to email them. When booking a tour via email, we didn't have to pay in advance and had greater flexibility to choose our tastings when we arrived versus deciding in advance.
Restaurant Reservations: 2 weeks to several months
After learning from our Italy trip last year, we made some reservations for restaurants in Portugal. It turned out to be a good move as Lisbon and Porto, in particular, were crowded and it was difficult to get in at peak time without a reservation. The alternative is to eat at off-peak hours.
That being said, even trying to make reservations 2-3 weeks in advance, some of the more popular places (i.e., Tapisco in Lisbon, Taberna dos Mercadores in Porto) were already booked for months. So, if you plan to visit any of the trendy restaurants, start booking months in advance!
Tourist Attractions (Palaces, Monasteries): 2 weeks or less
For many attractions, such as palaces, museums, and cathedrals, you can buy your tickets online ahead of time. Normally, I don't like buying tickets to attractions in advance because it puts me on a schedule and I like having flexibility in my day.
For certain attractions, we'd heard buying in advance was highly recommended. Some we did and were grateful. Others we did not and missed out. As a general rule, if you have any sights that you know you don't want to miss, you should buy tickets in advance.
Next Steps - Booking the Trip
Once you have a basic plan in place for your trip, it's time to start booking! Normally, I tend to plan and book simultaneously since I'm always planning last-minute.
Since we were coming from Asia, we found that a roundtrip to/from Lisbon worked best for us. We flew Emirates from Hong Kong through Dubai to Lisbon and had a smooth journey there and back.
If you're coming from elsewhere in Europe, you might choose to fly into Lisbon and out of Porto.
Tip for booking flights: I start by searching on Skyscanner.com to see what flights are out there and which combination of airports and dates look the most affordable and work best with our timing.
Finding & Booking Places to Stay in Portugal
When you're booking a trip at the last-minute, finding the perfect places to stay is tough. But for our trip to Portugal, I found an amazing variety of accommodations with charm, warm hospitality, and great views.
Method for Finding Accommodations in Portugal
For this trip to Portugal, I searched several sites, including Expedia and Booking.com. As I began booking our accommodations, I was shocked by how expensive hotels were. Not sure if this would change if we'd booked earlier.
For Lisbon and Porto, our budget was 200-300 USD per night. For the smaller towns, I tried to stay under 200 USD per night, with one obvious splurge.
Accommodations Booked in Portugal
Ultimately, I booked a variety of boutique guest houses, a bed & breakfast, and apartments which we thoroughly enjoyed. Each place was comfortable, clean, with nice view and in central locations, walking distance to most attractions.
Here is a list of the places we stayed in Portugal, the site where I booked it, as well as what each place cost.
Booking Transportation in Portugal
When deciding what mode of transportation is right for your trip to Portugal, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself.
Ultimately, we decided to do a mix of train and driving for our Portugal trip. We knew we did not want to have a car while in Lisbon and Porto. Not only is it not necessary for getting around the cities, but trying to find parking would be inconvenient and expensive.
As a result, we explored Lisbon and Porto first. Then, rented a car for a week and returned it when we got back to Lisbon.
Riding Trains in Portugal
Traveling by train in Portugal is quite easy and very convenient. We took the commuter train to Sintra on a day trip from Lisbon and a high-speed train from Lisbon to Porto. The high-speed trains are comfortable and make a great way to travel.
Booking Train Tickets Online
For the long-distance trips, I recommend booking your ticket ahead of time online. I booked our Lisbon to Porto trip on the Alfa Pendular high speed train on the Comboios de Portugal site. Be sure to have your passport ready when booking as you'll have to enter your passport number.
Once booked, you'll receive an email with a PDF of the tickets which you can print or pull up easily on your phone for the ticket collector. Though I recommend taking a screenshot of the QR code beforehand in case you lose service during the train ride.
Commuter Train Tickets
Unfortunately, you cannot book your commuter train tickets online. If you buy a Lisbon card, however, train transportation from Lisbon to Sintra is included. The 24-hr Viva Viagem (Carris/Metro/CP option) also includes the train to Sintra, which is a CP suburban train.
If you do not get any of these cards, then you'll have to purchase your ticket in the station. Arrive early if you're going to Sintra because there will be LONG QUEUES at Rossio Station.
Pro Tip: Line up in the queue for the ticket counter instead of the ticket machines to purchase your rail tickets, especially if you're buying for more than one person. At the ticket machines, you can only purchase one ticket at a time. Plus, you must use a different credit card for each ticket purchased. As you can imagine, buying tickets like this is time-consuming and those lines move more slowly.
Renting a Car in Portugal
In order to explore the Portuguese countryside and some of the smaller towns, we decided to rent a car. Rental cars were fairly affordable when we visited and driving in Portugal was easy.
Pro Tip: Most highways in Portugal are toll roads. The rental car should have a toll transponder in the car. After your trip, expect an additional bill from the rental car company with the toll fees. Our total in tolls for a week came to ~27 USD. They were charged to the credit card we left on file with the company and we received an email with the receipt.
Recommendation for Rental Car Pick-up and Drop-off in Portugal
We booked a Hertz rental car on Expedia with a pick-up in downtown Porto and drop-off in downtown Lisbon. However, we had awful experiences picking up our car (almost 2-hr wait) and trying to drop it off (office closed even though it was supposed to be open). Therefore, I recommend choosing the airports for pick-up and drop-off.
The airports would have more cars on-site, more staff working, plus longer opening hours, so hopefully your experience will be better than ours was. We ended up dropping our car off at the Lisbon airport since the downtown office was closed and it was a smooth process.
Pro Tip: If you are trying to decide if you want to rent a car, remember that you'll also have to consider parking. Check if your hotels offer parking. If not, can they recommend a nearby garage and how much additional will that cost. Also, streets in some cities may be drivable by local permit only, so you'll want to be sure to avoid those in order to not get a ticket.
Ordering Tickets for Tourist Attractions
In order to be sure to see certain attractions that are important to you, be sure to book those tickets in advance. Some sights that you should consider booking in advance are:
Other Things to Consider Before Your Trip to Portugal
Now that you have your trip booked and you're getting closer to when you need to leave, here are some things you should consider to prepare for your trip. And for a more complete list, check out my Ultimate Guide to Preparing for International Travel.
Visa and Entry Requirements
Before any trip, it's important to check what the visa and entry requirements are for your nationality for the country or countries to which you're traveling.
As a U.S. citizen, no visa is required to enter Portugal for tourism for stays under 90 days.
Learn Key Phrases in Portuguese
Although English is widely spoken throughout Portugal (more than I was expecting!), it's nice to learn a few phrases and pronunciation before traveling to Portugal. If you've learned any French, Spanish, or Italian, reading Portuguese should come fairly easily. However, Portuguese pronunciation is entirely different from other romance languages.
As a result, I'm glad that I used the app Duolingo to get comfortable with Portuguese pronunciation and learn some basic phrases. It made it a lot easier to understand some of the things people asked me while in Portugal. Even after realizing that Duolingo teaches Brazilian Portuguese instead. Whoops!
Download the Uber / Bolt App
Packing Tips for Portugal in Autumn
Depending on the time of year that you visit Portugal, the things you'll need to pack will change. In early autumn, we found Portugal to be quite warm and sunny during the day, but with cool evenings, nights, and mornings.
This weather made it hard to know how to dress some days, but also meant layers were a good idea. Often, I'd wear jeans to breakfast, change into a dress for the day, then be back in jeans at night. Or, stay in a dress but would throw a sweater or jacket over it.
My Favorite Outfit for a Trip to Portugal
After spending two weeks in Portugal, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the best outfit to bring to Portugal in autumn. Without a doubt, the outfit I preferred to wear during the day in Portugal was a light, summery dress (this one was my favorite for walking around during the day) with Allbirds white sneakers.
To make it more comfortable to walk around in dresses, I usually wear a pair of Lululemon shorts underneath. This also turned out to be a good idea in Portugal given the strong ocean breezes that tended to lift my dresses!
Other Items to Bring to Portugal
Other than clothes, I'd recommend a few other things you should consider bringing for an extended trip to Portugal.
Even if you forget something, you can find most everything you need in Portugal. In fact, you should be sure to leave room in your suitcase in case you do a bit of shopping while you're there.
Planning a trip to Portugal can be overwhelming with all the preparation and reservations needed, but it's also exciting to watch the trip come together. Even though I stressed a lot during the planning, I was very happy that I'd done it once we arrived.
However, even the parts of the trip that I didn't plan out in detail were amazing. So, whether you're an over-preparer or under-preparer, you'll be sure to have a fantastic trip to Portugal!
Other Articles You May Enjoy
Next article in the Portugal series: 4 Days in Lisbon, Portugal – A Complete Itinerary
Or, if you're thinking about planning a big trip, here are some other articles you may find useful: